The Good Oil: There would have been no Quattro without Iltis
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Both Quattro (capital “Q”, the original Audi sports coupe) and quattro (the name for Audi AWD technology generally, always with a small “q”) are part of the modern motoring lexicon. The name needs no explanation… except perhaps for the one we just gave.
Audi launched the roadgoing Quattro in 1980, transforming the brand’s image and the face of global rallying. But none of it would have happened without a winter jaunt in an ugly Volkswagen.
In 1976-77, Audi was conducting deep snow testing in Sweden with a number of models. It brought along a VW Iltis (German for “polecat”) as support vehicle – an idiosyncratic creation cobbled together by Audi for its parent company as a vehicle for the German Army.
The Audi engineers couldn’t ignore how the 4WD Iltis shrugged off conditions that crippled the 2WD road cars. They started to wonder what a much more powerful and refined Iltis would be like… and then twigged that a luxury coupe with Iltis 4WD technology would be even more appealing.
The Quattro was far from the first production AWD passenger car, but it certainly put the technology on the world stage. And it was definitely the first AWD car in top-level rallying, although not for long.
Little glory left for the Iltis (aka Type 183) then, which is a shame. As it did with the earlier Type 181 (“The Thing”), VW created a civilian version in 1979, with a 1.7-litre engine, 55kW of raw power and a four-speed manual with a “gelande” (low/terrain) gear.
VW even entered four Iltis models in the 1980 Paris-Dakar Rally (only the second running of the event), partly to showcase its abilities to other nations’ armed forces. In a field of much larger and more powerful rivals, it finished first, second, fourth and ninth – in a race where finishing at all was an achievement.
But even that couldn’t make the Iltis a star and production wound up in 1982, after 9000 examples. It’s now a cult collectable of course, but also remains the greatest compact SUV named after a mustelid native animal ever.